Today is the last day on the job for the man responsible for Minnesota's Sex Offender Treatment Program.
Dennis Benson has worked for the state for a total of 38 years, starting as a correctional officer. After stints as warden of two state prisons, and deputy commissioner of corrections, he assumed his current position in the state Department of Human Services in 2008.
The program costs about $300 a day for each person who is committed, versus a cost at state prisons of $85 a day.
Benson spoke with Tom Crann of All Things Considered on Tuesday.
An edited version of that discussion is below.
Dennis Benson: This should be compared to mental health programs, not prison programs. Because in prison, while they do a phenomenal job of providing treatment, they're still only providing treatment to 20 percent of the sex offenders. That's all they have the money for. In my program, I have to be prepared to offer treatment to 100 percent of the patients and that's an incredible cost driver.
When I got there we had about 55-60 percent treatment participation. Today it's 88-89 percent treatment participation. That's expensive. These are complicated folks. This is not a cookie-cutter treatment program. Corrections has a great treatment program for sex offenders, but it's kind of one-size-fits-all.
Tom Crann: What's wrong with the argument...of keeping those people in the corrections system at that cost?
Benson: Having sat in both chairs, I think trying to sentence your way out of this issue would cost you ten times as much money. And it's been proposed, and there's been lots of chatter about it. You don't have to pay $85 a day very often before you absorb my budget and more if you're going to try to keep them in prison for an extended period of time.
I'm not saying that that might not be part of the solution. I think sentencing probably will ultimately continue to be reviewed, and I think they can probably get that wheel a little rounder. But in Minnesota in my two decades working with the Legislature is occasionally they overcorrect. And I would hate to see them overcorrect here too. I think there are things they can do to the civil commitment program to make it more defensible. And there's probably some things they can do around sentencing policy.
Crann: We saw the release of one former inmate recently for the first time. Is the measure of success the number of people who are able then to be released back into society at large?
Benson: My measure of success is good public safety. That's the primary responsibility of this program, and also what the Department of Corrections does. Inherent in that process, I would hope when we're spending literally millions of dollars on treatment, that at least for some, that would make a difference. And ultimately some might reach a point where we could manage them with dramatically reduced risk in the community. We will never cure them, our clinical team will tell you that. But we think that in some cases, those people that work hard, that we can get them to a point where we can reduce the risk so that they can be appropriately managed in the community.
Crann: What would you say is the most important thing you've learned in your time as head of the sex offender treatment program?
Benson: The thing that was surprising and somewhat disappointing is how afraid our society is of sex offenders. I think it's critically important that if we're going to make progress in the management of sexual violence in this state, we have to do an awful lot of public education around the whole phenomenon of sexual violence in Minnesota.